The place was Primitivo Wine Bar in Venice, and the sparkler was from Kaiken in Mendoza, Argentina. If you've never had sparkling wine from Argentina, this classy Brut is a good first choice. It's made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, following traditional champagne-making procedures, and was aged two years in the bottle before release.
The name Kaiken comes from an indigenous word for a wild goose that flies across the Andes. This describes how the Montes empire has expanded from Chile to Argentina."It's a "magical place," said Montes Jr., Kaiken's chief winemaker. "Argentina is crazy. They have passion. They really take care about life." No wonder he enjoys living in Mendoza.
Of course, Kaiken makes an inexpensive Malbec, the sort of wine Argentinians would drink with barbecue. The Kaiken Reserva Malbec 2011, poured at the lunch, sells for about $12.
Then there is Mai, Kaiken's first icon wine, which gets its name from an indigenous word for "first." You'd have to pay $80 for a bottle of this Malbec. The 2007 spent 18 months in new French oak and two years in the bottle. Most of the grapes came from a 104-year-old vineyard in Vistalba. Only 500 cases were made.
Too rich for your pocketbook? Then drop down to the Kaiken Terroir Series Malbec 2012 for about $16 (it's elegant, dry) and the Kaiken Ultra Malbec 2011, made from hand-picked, hand-selected grapes, a luscious bargain for about $20.
The deep purple-red Terroir wine blends 80% Malbec with 12% Bonarda and 8% Petit Verdot. There's 4% Cabernet Sauvignon in the Ultra Malbec. They're both in the photo above, along with the Kaiken Ultra Cabernet 2011.
"Eighty percent of wine sales in Argentina is Malbec," Montes said, sounding a bit too modest when he added, "Malbec is for lazy winemakers. You can be the laziest winemaker in the world and still make good Malbec. Cabernet Sauvignon takes more work."
Montes is obviously not lazy. He poured two of his Cabs at the lunch and is working on a Bonarda, which is not yet in the bottle. Bonarda is the second most common grape variety in Argentina after Malbec, grown mainly for bulk wine, he said.
He's also working on Petit Verdot, "one of the most amazing wines you can produce in Argentina, but for conocedores [connoisseurs] only," he said.
Chardonnay in Argentine is also "amazing," but very little is produced. Instead of the Kaiken Chardonnay, Montes poured the Terroir Series Torrontes 2012, the winery's first bottling of this varietal (above left).
Dry and not overly spicy, it reflects Montes personal taste. Not fond of the average Torrontes, he changed the winemaking style, going for an early harvest and producing a fresh, easy drinking wine.
The quintessential Argentine dish is beef, though, and that showed up with the icon wine Mai. The thick, juicy, tender steak had a chimichurri style sauce with oregano on top and thin, crisp French fries on the side (above). This is what Montes is eating in the photo farther up, and it was every bit as good as what you would get in a top level parrilllada restaurant in Argentina.